ways to say no

24 Ways to Say NO: The Art of Setting Healthy Boundaries

There are two things that are often overlooked in creating a lifestyle of balance.

  1. Setting Healthy Boundaries
  2. Knowing lots of ways to say NO

Our boundaries are tested every single day. The test could come from our children who choose not to take No from us or from our spouses with whom we have to tread lightly lest we get him angry. Or it could be from that colleague who can’t seem to get her work done and is always asking for our help.

Boundary tests could come from our bosses who wait till the last minute and drop new work files on our desk just when we are logging off. It from that church ministry leader who is always asking for favors from you or the PTA chairman who assumes that because you baked cookies once and brought to the parents’ meeting, that you are the designated bakery for subsequent meetings.

These tests reveal chinks in our armor and shed light into areas of our lives that are unhealthy and need repair so that our boundaries can remain strong and unmovable.

God is the originator of boundaries. In the physical sense, He created a separation between the light and the darkness, between the sky and the earth, between the land and the sea, between the light governing the day and the one governing the night, and between creatures that lived above the earth and those that lived in the water (Genesis 1). He also set boundaries for Adam by stating what he could do –“be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28) and not do “but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:17).

In the Old Testament, we see God creating boundaries between Him and man because He is holy and our nature as unholy people disqualifies us from dwelling in His presence. Jesus, while on His ministry on earth, reminds us of His Father’s boundaries and it is only through justification by faith that we take on the righteousness of God’s son and become co-heirs with Him (Romans 8:17).

We also see God respecting the boundaries that we create for ourselves. He gives us the freedom to accept Him into our lives or close Him off. Jesus lays it all out when He tells us that we have the freedom to hear God’s word and obey it (Luke 11:28) or not. We are not forced to accept Jesus Christ as our Savior. It is by free will that we obey and live for Him.

“Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.” (John 14:21)

In an ideal world, everyone would have strong boundaries and would respect each others’ limits. However, we live in a broken world that has fallen short of His glory (Romans 3:23) As a result, we will always encounter people who disrespect our boundaries and test our reactions.

setting healthy boundaries, ways to say no

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What is a healthy boundary?

A healthy boundary is one where the limit of what is your responsibility and what is not your responsibility has been defined. Healthy boundaries are the limits to which you will take ownership of something. It excludes those things that you do for others that they should actually take ownership of.

You will know that you have a healthy boundary when you can say NO to anything that is not your job or responsibility, whether at home, in the office, at church, in your extended family, or in the society. Also, a healthy boundary teaches us to recognize evil and refuse its existence in our lives. It saves us from being compliant women who stay in abusive and dangerous relationships. A healthy boundary helps us “guard our hearts” (Proverbs 4.23) against the evil around us.

The temptations of Jesus Christ give great insight into the health of His boundaries. The devil begins by questioning his identity “if you are his son” (Luke 4:3, 9), but Jesus stands firm in His knowledge of Scripture. He is not budged by the temptation of owning the world and rebukes the devil for testing Him (Luke 4:12).

As disciples of Christ, we emulate Him by creating healthy boundaries that guard us against evil and keep us in His will. Therefore as women, we must define the edges of our boundaries and be clear about what we can tolerate, accept, and agree with.

As moms, it is important to clearly define what our job in the house is and what it is not. For example, you could stipulate that making your own bed is partly your job but making your teenager’s bed is his/her job. You could define guiding your child when studying as doing your job but outrightly doing his/her school project is not your job. Your job could be to purchase all the materials your child needs to work on the project.

It is much easier in the office because we have job descriptions that outline our individual responsibilities. That job description is a great start for a boundary if it enables us to fulfill our jobs and does not award our colleague’s responsibilities to us.

Why is it important to have boundaries?

Healthy boundaries help us recognize and shun evil. We are encouraged in Proverbs 4:23 (NIV) that “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” By choosing to disagree or not to participate in evil, we can guard our hearts against wrongdoing. Also being able to say NO to things that are contrary to God’s word helps guard our hearts against engaging in evil.

Healthy boundaries protect us from exploitation. These boundaries protect us from the fear of hurting other people’s feelings, fear of punishment or shame, or abandonment. We are also protected from an unhealthy dependence on others and freed from the bondage of feeling unspiritual, strict, or selfish because we say No to opportunities to exploit us.

Setting Healthy boundaries help reduce burnout. As women, we are always on the go, nurturing our families, supporting our friends, and helping our communities any way we can. These are all noble causes. However, participating in every event could cause us to burnout from both ends sooner than we think. David Cooke, an author and lead pastor of Cold Springs Church, says that burnout is the result of the choices we make in our lives. It is something we cause to ourselves. He asserts that we burnout when we neglect our emotional health (heart) as well as our intellectual (mind), spiritual (soul), and physical (strength).

Healthy boundaries give us freedom. Our personal boundaries are like gates and we should feel free to enjoy being in safe relationships and avoiding destructive ones. These boundaries give us the freedom to let God into our lives or keep Him off. “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” (Revelation 3:20)

Healthy boundaries also free us from misinterpreting Biblical compliance of mercy and sacrifice. “I desire mercy not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13). Biblical compliance focuses on the inside-out (showing mercy or being compassionate to others) while our misinterpretation focuses on compliance from the outside (sacrifice), which build resentment in the inside.

How do you keep good boundaries?

Now that we have established that maintaining healthy boundaries has benefits that are so important for our wellness, how do we go about keeping them? Below are 7 basic ways to maintain healthy boundaries.

  1. Take responsibility for yourself, your needs, and wants.
  2. Say No when requested to do something that contravenes God’s Word or causes you to disobey His commands. “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7).
  3. Not being agreeable at all times, especially when this behavior is out of fear or a need to be accepted.
  4. Be truthful to yourself about your limitations and exercising your power to submit these weaknesses to God and asking Him to reveal anything else that lies within the boundaries you’ve created. Also, seek God’s power to heal you from childhood trauma that affected your boundaries.
  5. Seek God’s forgiveness and the forgiveness of those whose boundaries you violated in your past.
  6. Don’t violate your own boundaries. Taking our cue from God who does not violate our boundaries or His boundaries, it is important to remain firm and not violate our own boundaries by compromise our personal beliefs, value systems, and godly obedience.
  7. Don’t judge other people’s boundaries and feeling entitled to some certain treatment. Just as we enjoy the freedom that our boundaries bring us, we should accept that others have the freedom to exercise their boundaries without getting angry with them or withdrawing our affection.

The importance of saying NO

Saying NO is an important skill to learn. We learn it as children but when we grow up and let societal expectations influence our decisions, we often relegate our needs and wants to the back burner. This is especially so for women. We are taught from a very young age that our role is to be nurturing and that caring for others is more valuable than taking care of ourselves first.

As we grow older, we learn that the needs of our children, spouses, parents, siblings, and friends precede our own needs. This ingrained belief is something that has to be unlearned. Unlearning these expectations does not mean that we no longer care about others, but that we realize that self-care and meeting our needs first help us become better mothers, wives, sisters, aunts, and friends.

Saying no to people, things, and temptations that are harmful to us is important because it means that we are conscious about protecting God’s investment in us. We become more thoughtful about how we spend our lives and the decisions we make that contravene His word.

Saying No is also important because it produces godly obedience. Instead of adopting a posture of compliance, where we say ‘yes’ even though we mean ‘no’, we become obedient from the inside-out. We become givers who make up their minds freely (2 Corinthians 9:7) and respond out of love.

Why is it difficult to say NO?

  • We are addicted to the feeling of saying ‘YES’. It is a beautiful thing to feel wanted and helpful. However, saying YES at the expense of our needs and wants could be an indicator that we have become addicted to feeling wanted and/or helping others. We may crave the attention that we receive when we help others. This craving could point to some unmet need in our lives that we compensate externally by being available to everyone else.
  • We tie our agreeableness to our self-worth. We say YES because we believe that this is how we will receive love. We falsely believe that when we slave for others, they will love us more. And when we put our needs first, they will love us less. So it is easier to say YES because we hold false beliefs about love and how we should receive it from others.
  • We feel that we are being selfish. We do not say NO because we believe we should love sacrificially. However, healthy boundaries enhance our ability to take care of and love others. Healthy boundaries teach us that to know our needs (Philippians 4:19) and empower us to look at our lives as stewards of God’s gifts. When we approach life from a stewardship view, we take measures to care for our bodies, abilities, behaviors, thoughts, and feelings. We see our emotional and spiritual development as God’s interests and take measures to protect His investment in us.
  • We are afraid of missing opportunities or losing relationships. Most times, we say YES because we fear missing out on opportunities that would arise from sacrificing our needs for someone else. We may feel that helping our colleague finish his project is an opportunity to show the boss how much of a team player we are. We may be afraid to say NO to our children because we feel that they would misinterpret it as being unloved. We may be afraid to say NO to our husband’s request to make a 3-course meal at 7:00pm because we do not want to upset him or make him believe that we are not being submissive. We may be scared to say NO to our parents who call us with unending demands and expectations because we do not want to seem disobedient. Or to say NO to the Pastor of our local church when he requests us to host a small fellowship at our home with just one hour’s notice.
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Different Ways to say NO

Healthy boundaries test the quality of the relationships we hold dear to us. The boundaries that we set can prove to be litmus tests for these relationships. If we test these relationships by saying No to something, we may find out that there was no relationship in the first place, or come out stronger with more intimacy. There are so many different ways to say NO. They are categorized as direct and indirect. Check out this list of ways to set your boundaries by saying NO.

Direct ways to say NO

Direct ways of saying NO generally require you actually saying the words NO. They require you to be assertive and focused. These ways of saying NO work best when you say nothing after the statement. When you set your boundary with a direct way of saying NO, there is no need to defend your position or overly apologize for your feelings here.

  • “No, I can’t help you with that.”
  • “No, I am unavailable.”
  • “No, this will not work for me.”
  • “Thank you for asking! I’m sorry I cannot help you right now.”
  •  “Not for me.”
  • “I am not the best fit.”
  • “Thanks, I’ll pass.”
  • “I would rather not.”
  • “Not at this time.”
  •  “I’m good.”
  •  “Nope”
  •  “Not possible.”
  • “Never.”
  • “Thanks, but no thank you.”
  • “Thanks, perhaps another time?”
  • “Circle back in a week or month, yeah?”

Indirect ways to say No

  • “Let me confirm with my supervisor.”

This helps when you receive a request from supervisors in other departments or your supervisor’s boss. It is best to confirm with your boss first because the request may be beyond your jurisdiction. You may find that that request had already been denied by your supervisor and this colleague wants to go behind his back and use you to satisfy a personal vendetta or goal. Alternatively, confirming with your boss helps him know that you want to grow your skills and could be a great opening for discussing your professional development.

  •  “My calendar is blocked right now. I’ll inform you if I’ll have an opening.”

Often times, our calendars are swamped with daily, weekly, and monthly tasks and targets. This way of saying NO is a legitimate response when you are really swamped and have no time to help a colleague.

  • “Why don’t you check with Mary? That’s right up her alley”

Sometimes, we get requests that are outside our jurisdiction. A colleague may approach you to help her work on her quarterly budget and yet there is finance department staff who can easily teach her. Leading your colleague in the right direction will free you and ensure that she gets the right help.

  • “I will revert.”

This response gives you time to think over the request and see whether you can fulfill it within the required time. It is best when you stipulate the time you will need to think and get back. Once that duration lapses, follow up with the person who requested your help and give them your feedback.

  • “I need you to do X first.”

This is a great strategy when you want to regain your position of power and counter the request with a requirement that the colleague or friend to do something first. Confirm with them that the counter-position is reasonable and wait for their response.

  • “Let’s give someone else a chance.”

This is great for the family set up or social gatherings where you lay the responsibility on someone else’s lap. If it is your family, you could say, “I’ve hosted and prepared Thanksgiving dinner every year since I moved here. Let’s ask my/your sister if she wants to host and cook this year.”

  • “I can’t perform at your event, but I can promote you on my Instagram page”

This is a great way to switch favors by introducing an alternative way you can help that person that won’t make you go out of your way or inconvenience your needs or time.

Final Thoughts on Saying No and Keeping Boundaries

It is easier to reject a request when we have already created the reason for denying it in the first place. For instance, if you spend time with your family on Saturdays and it is strictly family-time, then you have the structure needed to tell a friend/colleague that you are not available to work or go shopping on Saturday. If you only have two meetings scheduled per day, you have created a structure that helps you reject any unplanned meetings that crop up and choose to postpone them to a later date.

The reason for having a structure is that you will not feel compelled to give favors. You end up spending your time on things and people that really matter to you, and you find yourself contributing more to these relationships and jobs.

Say NO using any of the above examples

Depending on the nature of the request, the relationship with the individual seeking your help, and your own calendar/structure, you can choose to be direct, sassy, or indirect when saying NO to them.

Stick to your decision

Do not turn back on your word. Say you decline your cousin’s wedding invitation because it was out of State and you were nursing your newborn, you need to make the effort to look at the positives (eg spending time with your baby and time to rest) so you don’t feel guilty and turn back on your word.

We must watch our emotions at this stage because it is easy to feel guilty or resentment for declining an invitation. You may feel guilty for denying your child some candy after dinner. But if you made the decision for the benefit of your baby, you need to stick to it. If your child’s bed-time is at 8:00 pm, you need to stick to your decision. If they want to stay up longer on a school-night, say NO and let them go to bed. Being firm in such a case is beneficial for your child because a good night’s rest is essential for their growth and well-being.

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